Wales is preparing for a historic pro-LGBTQ+ education overhaul – what can we learn from others?
Lucas hated stepping into and out of the changing room, learning to dance in a girls’ physical education class. He felt ostracised by other boys and says that many of his classmates lacked the education and awareness to fully understand him.
Yet he considers himself “very lucky.”
A recent graduate, Lucas’s high school in Cardiff supported him when he came out as transgender, allowing him to use his chosen name and pronouns and giving him the option to drop out of the girls’ PE class.
But even at a relatively supportive high school, he chose to sit out of PE altogether rather than joining the other boys. “I kind of had a lot of problems with boys at my school, just the way they were,” he says. “And [they were] not very educated either, on the trans community, so I was looked at as not being one of the boys.”
A few decades earlier, in Nottingham, Rachel attended a religious school so conservative she hardly saw LGBTQ+ people at all until adulthood.
She says she grew up only knowing straight, married couples and that the “aggressiveness of the heterosexual culture” left her feeling isolated and ashamed when questioning her own identity years later.
Lucas and Rachel are not alone, and in May 2018, the Welsh Government decided to take action. It announced an overhaul of its Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) curriculum to mandate that every school include LGBTQ+ issues and identities, set to take full effect in 2022. The curriculum will be compulsory for all students aged three to 16. Wales became one of the world’s first countries to do this.
Maria, a Cardiff high school teacher and a mother of two school-aged children, has high hopes for the change. “As a parent, it can only be better to make children feel that what they’re feeling is fine,” she says.
UK statistics show that the overhaul is timely: over 20% of LGBTQ+ individuals in the UK experienced a hate crime last year, according to Stonewall Cymru, which releases annual figures. They show a recent rise in these crimes, and the UK’s Home Office reports a 30% increase in anti-LGBTQ+ hate crimes since the previous year.
Welsh schools are no strangers to daily discrimination.
Rachel has worked as a teachers’ assistant in Cardiff schools and says that still today, “the school culture is very ‘boys are supposed to be one way.’” She previously worked for an organisation supporting lesbian, gay and bisexual youth in need of housing, where she saw the same feelings of isolation she had once felt herself.
And despite the difficulties Lucas faced as a transgender student, some of his friends at other schools had much more damaging experiences.
“They’ve come out and their school’s kind of just disregarded it,” he says. “It doesn’t concern them that these people feel extremely uncomfortable being in that environment. They don’t really care about it, and [the students] just have to kind of try to deal with it.”
The government’s statement lays out a goal to embed healthy relationships and respect for others into the curriculum throughout the school experience.
“Making it really, really difficult for people to behave in those ways in schools is how it should be,” Maria says. “That should be the culture. It should be absolute zero tolerance.”
Rachel agrees, saying that the overhaul must be coupled with a broader commitment to improve schools’ culture.
“Ideally this would go hand-in-hand with trying to have a more progressive culture anyway in schools,” she says. “How do we treat each other as boys, as girls, as non-binary … what kind of language do we use?”
The new RSE curriculum was a collaboration of many minds: researchers from Cardiff University, women’s and LGBTQ+ charities (including Stonewall) and Kirsty Williams, the Welsh government’s Minister for Education and Skills, helped to design it. A number of pro-LGBTQ+ organisations celebrated Ms Williams’s historic announcement last year, thanking her for accepting an expert panel’s recommendations on teaching children about healthy relationships, led by Cardiff University professor Emma Renold. The statement, released on 22 May 2018, compelled Welsh schools to “ensure that RSE is fully inclusive of all genders and sexualities and meets the needs of LGBTQI+ learners.”
Despite the wave of excitement, as a teacher, Maria hadn’t heard much more in the following year. While the overhaul is unambiguous in its intentions—to teach children about healthy relationships in a way that includes LGBTQ+ identities and experiences—its specifics are a bit harder to grasp.
Between now and 2022, the Welsh government is investing £24 million in teacher preparation and training—“the biggest ever investment,” according to a Welsh government spokesperson.
Rachel is excited to see the country commit to an inclusive curriculum and can only hope its actual practice goes far enough.
“It’s just so far away from my experience. I mean, we didn’t even have PSE,” Rachel says. “The question is now whether they’re going to fight for it.”
She emphasises that extensive teacher training, particularly led by LGBTQ+ groups, will be crucial in making the curriculum effective. A Welsh government spokesperson has said new training initiatives are part of the curriculum’s preparations but did not specify whether LGBTQ+ organisations would be at their forefront.
Another area under particular examination is the relationship between religious education and RSE. The original plan demands that RSE be implemented for all students, compelling religious institutions to do so in a manner “consistent with their ethos.” While it would be unfair to assume that any particular school will resist a pro-LGBTQ+ change, there are organisations in the UK publicly opposing the measure, which begs the question of how many schools might be on their side.
Concerns over this component of the curriculum has led the Welsh Government to consider updating its exemption laws.
“Relationship and Sexuality Education (RSE) aims to nurture and develop learners’ understanding of the influences that can affect them, both positively and negatively, which includes learning at age-appropriate stages about gender, relationships and sexuality,” a Welsh Government spokesperson says. “We are currently consulting on proposals to ensure all young people are required to study RSE and Religious Education (RE) in the new curriculum, as opposed to the current practice where parents can prevent their children from attending these lessons.”
The public consultation, which is open through 28 November, is available here.
Parental objections to a Birmingham school’s LGBTQ+-inclusive lessons—which prompted public support from some right-wing Christian organisations—have sparked nationwide debates in the year following Wales’s announcement.
Rachel says the Birmingham controversy should remind Wales to keep religion out of national policy. “For gay people, I think, we probably have a heightened awareness of if religion gets too much traction in society, we would be the ones that would be seeing the brunt of that first,” she says.
She also speaks fondly of the many Muslims in her life who are committed to LGBTQ+ causes and warns that the developments in Birmingham are not a license for Islamophobia or racism. “Islamophobia, and especially its rise in recent times, absolutely must be fought against,” she says. “But I don’t think that’s the same as saying that religion gets to dictate what the state deems to be human rights.”
The new policy isn’t just facing opposition from the right. While advocates of the RSE curriculum are excited for a step forward—Lucas and Maria recall their time in brief, gendersegregated sex education lessons presenting students with condoms, tampons and an aura of awkwardness, while Rachel says she got one lesson on how married couples can have children— many hope it will adequately address transgender issues.
Although anti-LGBTQ+ targeting of all kinds has been on the rise in the UK, the transgender population has been particularly hit: over 40% of transgender individuals reported experiencing a hate crime in the last year—compared with 16% of lesbian, gay and bisexual people.
“I have no idea what’s going to be in these lessons,” Lucas says. “I think most likely they’re just going to tackle lesbian and gay sex, but it would be amazing if they talked about the trans community as well. . . . It definitely needs to be spoken about, and I hope they put it into the curriculum.”
The Welsh Government has published a number of details on the content and implementation of this curriculum in recent months. When questioned, a spokesperson has said that the curriculum will provide “learning that supports tolerance, empathy and understanding of different people, cultures and communities, irrespective of gender.”
LGBTQ+ people and supportive educators of all ages hope the change goes beyond shallow tolerance to promote a wholly inclusive and empowering society for students and families. Rachel says continued acknowledgement and visibility of the LGBTQ+ community are especially important for young people who feel isolated.
“It would be nice to think that more and more young people wouldn’t have to carry any shame,” Rachel says. “Well, it’s not even just the shame, it’s the visibility, it’s the sense of possibilities in your life. Some things are harder to measure.”
The Welsh government turned a lot of heads with its announcement. Maria, Rachel and Lucas are not alone in sharing excitement over the new RSE curriculum: several media outlets covered the announcement as a global landmark in education. However, it will take long-term commitment to quell the scepticism of educators and transgender advocates.
“It needs to be handled well and thought through properly by the people who are going to present it,” Maria cautions. “Wales does really have a chance to do something great.”